During the time I have been managing Baker Donelson's pro bono programs, I've been impressed and gratified to see lawyers and bar associations and groups across the country step up en masse to tackle some very important legal issues. The death penalty is an issue that has received a great deal of attention for many years, and more recently the focus on immigration has increased dramatically. Civil rights cases, including issues like marriage equality, voting rights and human trafficking have made the news, and helping veterans is a mainstay. I've gotten involved in many of these issues myself, especially death penalty cases.
But I find myself increasingly frustrated. Why? Because in nearly a decade of working on a daily basis with low income communities - homeless people, former inmates, people in rehab, but also just generally what we lawyers think of as indigent populations - I have come to realize that there's a gigantic, over-arching problem that never gets much organized attention. Low income communities are plagued with unresolved minor criminal or quasi-criminal matters, like a persistent low grade fever that never quite clears up and saps their energy every day. Please don't misunderstand - low income people commit no more petty crimes and traffic offenses than do people with resources. Lord knows they are charged more, though, and once charged they lack all the tools the rest of us have to clear things up. So they drag the charges and their consequences around interminably, a dead weight that slowly sinks them.
No lawyer to make it go away or give you good advice? Just plead guilty like everyone in the courtroom says, and be branded a petty criminal forever. Can't pay the fine right now? Go on "probation," add a monthly fee for being poor, and then get hounded for money every week. Oh, and we'll suspend your driver's license until you finally pay it off (plus reinstatement fee). Miss a payment or two? Can't report to the fake probation office every time it is demanded because you have no transportation, no child care, or can't get off work again for fear of losing your minimum wage job? Here's a warrant for your arrest.
People's lives are literally being ruined every day by these legal issues, many of which aren't even that complicated. So why is it that there's no massive, coordinated push by lawyers, no community of non-profits, to help? Best I can figure, it's because of a lack of public understanding, and therefore public sympathy, for the victims of this particular plague. If the public does not care, or thinks the victims are to blame for their own troubles, then there is no political or PR upside to any broad effort to address the issue. The funding provided by Congress to the Legal Services Corporation comes with all kinds of strings, including restricting LSC funded organizations to working only on certain types of civil cases. Although there is a welcome new focus on public defenders, thanks largely to the wonderful Gideon's Promise, there usually are no public defenders appointed to represent people who are charged with traffic offenses or petty misdemeanors that carry (in theory) no threat of jail time. Most private criminal defense attorneys have no interest in, or can't afford to, deal with these kinds of cases. And overall, law firm lawyers and state and local bar associations are just not getting excited about this problem. It's not sexy, and it doesn't involve complex or high profile litigation. Worse, it involves helping people that the general public regards as undeserving criminals. Making their problems a cause with which we're identified would be bad for business. It would play into and exacerbate the public's already dubious view of lawyers. We want pro bono to make them like us better, right?
Recently, the issue of criminal justice debt has caught on a bit. Some nonprofits and law firms have become interested in handling the civil litigation needed to challenge some of the atrocious and unconstitutional practices being used in many jurisdictions. But somehow, someone has to figure out how to make the crushing burden on the individual caught up in the machinery of petty offenses a cause célèbre. People who have no resources need to show up for court and find that there is someone there to help them. People who have been struggling under this burden for years need to be able to find help to get fines remitted and warrants recalled. There are some real heroes out there, lawyers who expend valuable time and effort coming to the rescue of one person at a time. But there aren't nearly enough. I hope that more lawyers, bar associations and nonprofit organizations will see fit to begin addressing the immediate problem of the individuals whose daily existence is being made so difficult. The arc of moral litigation is long, and many people simply can't wait for it to bend toward justice.